Prince Rupert of the Rhine


The constitutional confrontation of King Charles I with Parliament became more serious in early 1641 when the king ordered the arrest of the House’s leaders, then it became outright war in August 1642. Many of the shires were dominated by Puritans, hence sympathetic to Parliament, and when the Scots abandoned the alliance with the king, Charles authorised his supporters to raise money and conscript troops however they could. His strongholds were in Oxford and York, so when the allied Parliamentary and Scottish armies closed in on York in 1644, the king sent a relief army north under his nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the dashing son of Frederick of the Palatinate, the ‘Winter King’ of Bohemia. No one was more ‘cavalier’ than Rupert, no one less a ‘Roundhead’. This army represented a combination of the king’s last money and best hopes.

Rupert, whose parents were exiles from their own lands, grew up at the court of William II of Orange. Early demonstrating an ability to master languages, mathematics, and the arts, his military career—notable for his reckless bravery—began at the age of fourteen. He made a good impression on King Charles during a visit to England, after which he had distinguished himself at the 1637 siege of Breda. The next year, serving as an officer in a company of Scottish mercenaries, he was captured by the imperial army and held prisoner for three years in Austria—resisting all efforts to convert him to Catholicism. When the Civil War began, he and his brother Maurice brought a company of Scottish mercenaries to the king’s aid, and Charles gave him the command of the royal cavalry. His dashing leadership inspired the horsemen and almost won the war, but his arrogant manners offended prominent nobles around the king.

Rupert brilliantly marched around the allied position at Marston Moor on 1 July 1644 and disrupted the siege of York, but when he announced to the other officers that the king had ordered him to engage the parliamentary forces in battle and crush them, his hearers were disconcerted—the opposing army outnumbered them by 27,000 to 17,000, and it was led by the Earl of Leven, one of the finest commanders of the age, and Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), an amateur who was proving himself equal to Leven. Rupert, however, insisted that his army contained better soldiers—professionals. That is, they were mercenaries with foreign experience. He also believed that he could catch the enemy coalition dispersed and unready for battle. Rupert’s officers were not sure—there were many experienced men in the enemy ranks, too, especially Campbells who had served in the Swedish army. Moreover, knowing that the king’s advisors usually counselled caution, they spoke against taking rash action now. Still, they gave way to the stronger personality.

Rupert put his men on a forced march to Marston Moor. Although he arrived at the allied camps too late to catch them by surprise and his men were exhausted, he ordered an attack before Leven could pull his scattered units together. At that moment some of his mercenaries refused to fight until they were paid. While Rupert negotiated, Leven put the Scots and Parliamentary forces into a line of battle behind a marsh, then, seeing that Rupert had chosen a strong position opposite him, he stood on the defensive. Not far apart, the two armies waited for reinforcements, watching each other cautiously. Rupert’s reinforcements came in first, fine units from York. Although it was already late in the afternoon, Rupert announced that he would attack immediately. Again, his officers objected—the reinforcements were tired, as were his own men, and it was time for supper. Moreover, the commander of the York troops, James King, Lord Eythin (1589-1652), had long mistrusted Rupert’s love of the wild attack; he spoke for fighting on the morrow. His was not a voice to be dismissed lightly. King had served in the Swedish army from 1609-1636, then in the army of the Landgraf of Hesse. At that time he had fought alongside Prince Rupert and quarrelled with him over tactics, now as then, considering the prince reckless and overly-daring. His counsel prevailed. As both armies began making camp, Rupert left the field, and his troops left their ranks. At that moment Leven ordered an attack. Cromwell was fortunate in that the opposing cavalry commander ignored orders to wait until the Parliamentary horsemen had floundered across the marsh, then been decimated by musketeers, before charging to meet them; unwilling to endure artillery fire longer, he rode through his own infantry, only to founder in the marsh. Cromwell’s Ironsides scattered the disordered royalist cavalry, then swept through the gap in Rupert’s lines and into the rear of the royal army. It helped that some royalist units preferred looting the campsites to fighting, while Cromwell’s men concentrated on winning a victory, then pursuing the beaten enemy.

The traditional mercenary army composed of disparate units, unevenly trained and equipped, was clearly out of date; not even a solid core of officers coming home from the Thirty Years War sufficed to make up for its defects. Subsequently, Cromwell persuaded Parliament to reform the army along the lines of his troops—the ‘New Model Army’. He standardized the composition of regiments of infantry and cavalry, cladding many in red uniforms; the state was henceforth responsible for pay, not the commander; and politicians were excluded from leadership positions. Discipline was emphasised, as was religious fervour. Cromwell’s opponents, especially in Ireland and Scotland, were highly motivated, but they lacked discipline—a trait they would learn too late, but in the future apply effectively on foreign battlefields. It may have been Prince Rupert who first called Cromwell’s cavalrymen ‘Ironsides’, but it was a name that distinguished them from the ‘Roundheads’ who formed the earlier parliamentary armies—enthusiastic but undisciplined warriors.

Rupert continued to inspire and offend, leading his ‘Cavaliers’ to unlikely victories until 1646, when the king surrendered to Leven and made peace with Parliament. Unwisely, however, Charles believed that his bickering enemies were so divided that he could overthrow them one by one. Parliament sought to reduce the danger of renewed war by exiling the men most likely to assist him—most notably Rupert and his brother, Maurice. Rupert went to France, where he served in the English troops fighting for France against Spain; wounded in 1647, he returned to the court in exile, where he quarrelled with the queen’s closest advisors—whose counsel hurried her husband to the block in 1649. As soon as Rupert recovered his health, he led an expedition to Ireland, where he operated more as a pirate than a soldier, then fled ahead of the English navy to Portugal, where he resumed his piratical activities until 1650, when the English fleet trapped his ships in the River Tagus.

In typical heroic fashion, Rupert escaped, to attack English and Spanish ships in the Mediterranean and on the African coast. In 1652 he sailed to the Americas, but found the colonists there reluctant to join the royalist cause—not surprisingly, considering that many Puritans had gone to America as much to escape royalist oppression as to improve their lot. In 1653, after Maurice was lost in a storm, Rupert joined Charles’s court in Paris. He left for Germany in hope of finding employment, but found nothing to do except quarrel with those who should have been his closest friends and allies.

After the Restoration in 1660, Charles II gave Rupert a post in the Navy, where he served honourably in the wars against Holland and made important contributions to the exploration of the New World. His career was a fine example of the ways that personal, family and national ties intertwined with the great events of the times, especially in making nobles into quasi-mercenaries. In Rupert’s case, he was able to make a career as a soldier while serving his family’s interests. Not every exile was so fortunate.

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